A sound art piece about headphones and listening.
A sound art piece about headphones and listening.
While I was in Ottawa last week, timing would have it that Christian Marclay’s epic video installation piece The Clock was showing at the National Gallery. I of course made a point of going to see it.
The Clock is a 24-hour video collage composed of thousands of film clips (culled from the entire history of global cinema, not just Hollywood), each of which makes visual reference to time via glimpses of all manner of clocks and watches. At any given minute in the 1,440 minutes that make up its twenty-four hour length, The Clock shows one or several visual representations of that precise moment in time. And here’s the best part: the work is synced to the real world time zone you happen to be in as you’re watching. So as I wandered in the National Gallery with a friend at 2:45pm on a Friday afternoon, Marclay’s movie was showing clips of time pieces showing 2:45pm. Very cool.
Marclay creates in a variety of media, but is particularly well-known for his pioneering sound work as a turntable artist, manipulating records and record players in live performances since the late 1970s. One of the pleasures of The Clock is that Marclay brings a DJ’s sensibility to the film’s soundtrack. You can hear it as one clip segueways to another, the incidental sounds from one scene dovetailing seamlessly with the next in endlessly inventive ways. The soundtrack never cuts, only flows, which lends the visuals an enhanced coherence. And while The Clock as a whole may not mean anything specific–aside, I suppose, from chronicling the passing of time itself and documenting its representation in film–as you watch you can’t help but search for meaning and connections through its endless stream of clips. It’s quite the immersive experience too: sitting on the couches in the pitch dark room watching the large screen, you sense the real minutes effortlessly ticking away. Watching The Clock feels like watching a clock, only it’s a clock that is constantly metamorphosing and superimposed with multiple visual and sonic narratives.
By the way, I watched The Clock with a somewhat impatient friend for about 15 minutes. Ironically enough, he kept looking distractedly at his phone to check . . . the time!
Here is a short BBC news report on the work:
And a fascinating profile of Marclay in The New Yorker is here.
When you go up to the second floor of MoMA PS 1 in Long Island City, Queens and walk down the hallway you can already hear the ethereal floating voices of Canadian artist Janet Cardiff’s sound art exhibit coming from a large room around the corner, beckoning you to take a closer listen. Walking into the room you see eight groups of five loudspeakers, stand-mounted at ear height and facing inwards, tracing a perimeter around an invisible oval. Keep walking into the middle of this speaker array and you find yourself buoyed by the glorious surround sound of forty recorded singers. The music stops you in your tracks and makes you think and feel anew, prompting a reflective state of mind. Listening while looking out the gallery’s windows where I could see in the distance traffic crawling silently on the Long Island Expressway against a bright blue sky beyond, time seems to come to a standstill. This music sounds like maybe it’s been playing continuously for hundreds of years–we just haven’t been paying attention. What is this?
Cardiff’s Forty-Part Motet (2001) is a looped recording of English composer Thomas Tallis’s Spem in alium (“Hope in any other”), a sacred motet composed around 1570 and scored for eight choirs of five voices each. Cardiff made a multitrack recording of the Salisbury Cathedral Choir singing this powerful piece of Renaissance vocal polyphony, with each singer on his or her own audio track. On playback, each singing voice is assigned to a single speaker, creating not 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound but a forty channel stereophonic experience that has tremendous, almost hyper-real sonic clarity.
Forty-Part Motet gets the relationship between form and content just right. The music of Tallis is an ever-shifting dense sound mass that draws you into its unresolved tensions and reminds you of just how powerful tonal harmony can be. Using techniques such as imitation and call and response between each five-voice choir that throw the sound around the gallery space, as well as moments of simultaneous intricate individual part singing, Spem in alium easily holds your attention for its eleven minute duration. At MoMA, I watched how the music had other gallery visitors riveted too. There were eleven of us in the room, some sitting on the benches in the middle, some walking around the perimeter traced by the speakers, some standing frozen, facing one side or another, as if at attention. One woman gestured to her companion to look at her arm moments after they entered the space: she already has goosebumps! And I spoke with a security guard who spends the day standing in a corner of the room, listening. He told me that “When I first started working here, I noticed people would come in and start crying. At first I didn’t know why, but then as I listened to it I started to understand.”
Cardiff presents Tallis’s musical content in the perfect vessel too. With each voice assigned to a speaker, the exhibit is a super choir with unmatched musical clarity. To my ear, the volume of each speaker is also a tad higher than a real singer would be, heightening the voices’ articulation even more. And just as important, Cardiff’s speaker arrangement invites the listener to take part in actively shaping his or her listening experience. For example, stand in the middle of the speakers and you’re in the middle of the choir, the disembodied voices coming at you from all directions like focused rays of light emanating from discrete points around the room. But start walking around and the sound mix changes accordingly. If you move in close to a speaker, it sounds like you’re turning up that channel of the choir “mix” and suddenly that speaker’s voice is highlighted and right in your face. And because it’s a speaker, the sound momentarily obliterates the other voices in the choir. It feels intimate–like looking out through a one-way mirror at a singer who can’t see us standing so close and listening. If you keep moving steadily from speaker to speaker, the scene plays itself out over and over, one voice highlighted for a moment, only to vanish again back into Tallis’s sound mass. I even spent some time behind one of the speakers and was struck by how much it felt like I was standing behind a real person singing, his voice muffled because the speaker’s front (mouth) was facing away from me. (Admittedly, the other reason I was also hanging out behind the speaker was to consider whether or not I could get away with breaking museum rules and take a clandestine photo. Couldn’t bring myself to do it though . . .)
Here is Cardiff discussing the work:
“While listening to a concert you are normally seated in front of the choir, in traditional audience position. With this piece I want the audience to be able to experience a piece of music from the viewpoint of the singers. Every performer hears a unique mix of the piece of music. Enabling the audience to move throughout the space allows them to be intimately connected with the voices. It also reveals the piece of music as a changing construct. As well I am interested in how sound may physically construct a space in a sculptural way and how a viewer may choose a path through this physical yet virtual space.
I placed the speakers around the room in an oval so that the listener would be able to really feel the sculptural construction of the piece by Tallis. You can hear the sound move from one choir to another, jumping back and forth, echoing each other and then experience the overwhelming feeling as the sound waves hit you when all of the singers are singing.”
And discussing the power of sound in general:
“One thing that interests me is the intimacy of sound. We have much more filtration when we look. We turn off. Sound comes immediately and it’s hard to stop it. It enters your consciousness much more easily than the visual.”
Cardiff’s piece then, invites ambient surround listening, close focused listening and mobile wandering listening. The only disconcerting aspect of the work is that the voices were recorded close-mic’d and thus dry and without reverb, giving them a clinical, disembodied sound. Whatever resonance they have comes from the natural reverberation of the gallery space, which helps bring them to life. But whenever one of the five voice choirs falls silent en masse, it sounds like their respective channels are momentarily muted (perhaps to preserve sonic clarity in the mix?) and their corresponding speakers just go dead, as if the power went off. Amazingly, one’s ear notices this subtle shift from virtual “liveness” to virtual “deadness” and it’s unnerving. Maybe the reason is that it’s a moment of rupture that breaks the spell of Cardiff’s work and reminds the listener that the power of sound reproduction technology to resurrect four hundred year old music is not without its limitations.
But Cardiff plays with sonic rupture too by foregrounding the technology in a playful way. At the end of the performance loop of Spem in alium, there’s a three-minute pause of non-music before the loop begins anew. But this pause is in fact the three minutes preceding the choir singing–that is, it’s those moments when the singers are standing around and waiting to actually the piece. And if you happen to be in the gallery space before the music has started up again and put your ear up to one of the speakers, you can just about make out bits of conversation: a young boy talking to his friend about a cool new toy he just got, or an older man inquiring about the new job of his colleague (“…that’s a full-time job isn’t it?…”). Within moments of figuring out what was going on, I pressed my ear up against several speakers, desperate to learn more about the real lives of these real singers trapped inside of these cold speakers. I was struck by the playfulness of Cardiff choosing to include this casual pre-performance chat into the fabric of Forty-Part Motet. In doing so she not only foregrounds the technology that allows her piece to come to life, but also reveals its powers to turn us listeners into eavesdroppers.
Below is a YouTube clip of the piece. The spatiality of its sound is quite good if you listen on headphones.
If you walk over the metal grating smack in the middle of the pedestrian island between 45th and 46th street where Broadway and 7th Avenue meet, slow down a little and listen closely to the space beneath your feet: you’ll notice a subtle shift in the soundscape around you. There is a mysterious low-pitched humming drone that sounds like it could be some kind of industrial engine or maybe the sound of a didgeridoo player helplessly trapped below, but it’s neither of these things. (Though for years I assumed it was a didge player with incredible lung power!) The drone is actually a subterranean continuous sound art installation designed by the artist Max Neuhaus (1939-2009) in 1977.
Growing up in suburbs of Westchester, NY, Neuhaus studied jazz drumming with the great Gene Krupa (the flamboyant drummer featured on Benny Goodman’s song, “Sing, sing, sing”) and then in the late 1950s went on to earn bachelors and master’s degrees from the Manhattan School Of Music. It was here that Neuhaus first encountered the music of American experimental composers including John Cage, Harry Partch, Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison, and Morton Feldman who were writing adventurous pieces for percussion ensemble. In the early 1960s, Neuhaus, who was touring as a percussionist with Pierre Boulez’s Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, became one of the first classical musicians to experiment with live feedback techniques using microphones and speakers. In his performances of Cage’s piece Fontana Mix, Neuhaus would place microphones on his percussion instruments in front of loudspeakers and allow the resulting feedbacking sound to resonate the instruments and create a great sonic din probably not unlike Jimi Hendrix’s squealing electric guitar soundscapes. It was the excitement of this kind of experimentation that led Neuhaus further and further way from traditional percussion music and into left-field sound work.
Eventually, Neuhaus took to heart Cage’s adage that everything in our listening environment can be considered music and began creating anonymous public sound works he called “sound installations” in the United States and Europe. Many of these works consist of continuous sounds placed in particular locations that have neither beginnings nor ends—they just go on and on whether you notice them or not. Neuhaus’s work in Times Square is called, fittingly, Times Square, though there is no sign around to tell you that. The installation’s sound is actually generated by a machine that amplifies and enhances the natural resonances already present below ground but otherwise inaudible from above. You can’t see the machinery making the sound, but that’s just as well, since Neuhaus intended the visual component to be all those who walk over the metal grating of the pedestrian island, as well as Times Square’s always proliferating giant billboards, hotels, shops and restaurants. Times Square initially ran continuously from 1977 until 1992. In 2002, the piece was resurrected and since that time has run twenty-four hours a day, every day.
I make a point of walking directly over Neuhaus’s sound installation most evenings to experience a fleeting 5-second experience of its basso continuo ambient drone. Neuhaus’s work is somewhat odd in that once you notice it, it gets you thinking for a moment, but about nothing in particular. It’s just one more voice blending in among the thousands of other sounds sounding in Times Square. You hear and notice the drone for a few seconds, then just move on.
You can listen to Times Square here:
“In a twist my mind came free and I was aware of the hard workings of the natural world beyond the periphery of ordinary attention, where passions lose their meaning and history is in another dimension, without people, and great events pass without record or judgment. I was a transient of no consequence in this familiar yet deeply alien world that I had come to love…”
-E.O.Wilson, Biophilia (1984)
In his concept of biophilia, biologist E.O. Wilson (who is one of the world’s foremost specialists on ants, by the way) refers to our innate human affinity for the natural world. But if you read the passage above once more and substitute the words “information world” for “natural world” it makes sense in a different way: you’re reminded of our experience of living in an information-saturated world too. In fact, read this way, the passage gives a pretty good sense of how I felt while immersed in Ryoji Ikeda’s compelling audio-video installation piece transfinite (a composite of three previous pieces, test pattern, data.tron, and data.scan), now on display at the Park Avenue Armory through June 11, 2011 (Admission is $12.00).
Ikeda (b.1966) is one of Japan’s most audacious electronic music composers and sound artists. His music has the sound of streams of numeric code transformed into slivers of sine tones that oscillate and drone, white noise, and sub bass hums, spanning a vast frequency range that pushes the limits of human hearing in both its upper and lower ranges. It’s patterned, it’s percussive, but also ambient and meditative. Ikeda’s music sounds highly mathematical, ordered, and even cold and indifferent to anyone who might be listening, yet somehow it draws you in because of its constant micro-variations and mutations, and because, well, it’s so extremely minimal. If I can make an analogy: the music sounds like the aggregate thoughts of our entire world as recorded by a satellite hovering just beyond the atmosphere–all humming and pulsing infobits to be understood one day perhaps by some alien life form elsewhere. (Note to self: How would a musicologist analyze this music? What could be transcribed?)
For the transfinite installation, there are a dozen speakers and four bass cabinets providing a powerfully immersive, multi-channel surround sound that changes depending on where you stand. The Park Avenue Armory is a vast space, so this on its own is a sonic feat. Listen here for an excerpt from a field recording I made while visiting the installation.
The transfinite is actually quite finite– about the dimensions of a basketball court, with a fifty foot high vertical screen down the middle that divides the space into two equally sized 70-foot halves. On the front half, both the floor and the vertical screen are lit from inside their smooth, vinyl-like surfaces, displaying an ever-changing, flickering and stuttering sequence of black and white visuals synced to the music (or is the music derived from the code driving the images?): geometric shapes, parallel lines, graduated shades of grey, and pointilistic graph grids blinking and flashing a mile a minute. Interestingly, the space feels different as people come and go and change their sitting and standing locations on the glowing floor. In this way, listeners/viewers become a part of the artwork.
The other side of the vertical screen shows projections of streams of numbers–as if to depict the DNA code for the visuals on the front side of the screen. Up the middle of the floor space there are nine equally spaced, upward facing, waist-high computer screens showing various high-resolution 3D visual representations of data such as nucleic-like structures floating over grids, more streams of numbers, and other rotating geometric designs. (Nothing ever stops moving in this installation.) It’s all very Minority Report-looking, and of course I tried to swipe one of the computer screens with my index finger to test for interactivity, but alas, I could only view and admire and try to decipher the digital images. And last but not least, the floor space on this side of the installation is covered in a soft, felt-like material that is striking because–back to E.O. Wilson’s biophilia idea–it grounds you. With your shoes off (visitors’ shoes must be removed), you feel the softness like beach sand, and this experience–this ancient experience of a textured ground beneath your (almost) bare feet–makes it feel as if your body is standing in nature while your mind has been hijacked by the datasphere. There’s a body-mind tension here that is really provocative if you’re open to it.
So what does the transfinite mean? In his artist statement, Ikeda notes that the transfinite is “the infinite that is qualitative and ordered” and that the subject of his piece is “the invisible multi substance of data.” While I don’t know exactly how Ikeda and his computer graphics programmers assembled their materials (there are apparently numerous computers working to power this piece), on the level of data the transfinite seems to be about the beauty of mathematics, about how strings of numbers can be re-purposed as artistic work. In this regard, Ikeda has created something powerful and affecting through what would seem to be rather impersonal and austerely rigid means.
When taking in this work, prepare to feel quite small in the face of not only those large illuminated screens that will tower over you but also in relation to the sheer volume of data represented visually and sonically. If you want, you can approach and get up close to either side of the vertical screen, at which point a curious thing happens: a silhouette of yourself comes into razor-sharp, HD focus.
Here you are (that’s me in the picture taking a picture of me), the listener/viewer projected right into Ikeda’s datasphere, a mind in the machine watching those data streams rain over you–a storm of abstract information coming too fast to ever make sense of. If there’s a better image for representing the immersive experience of living in the hyper connected, Facebook-ed, text messaging, Twitterific time of ours, I can’t think of one.
About eight years ago, I composed three electronic music pieces, This Would Be The Time, Have You Any Thoughts?, and All About Affect. The pieces are built around the sampled sounds of voice recordings left on my answering machine. (Do you remember answering machines?) There is nothing new in this: French radio engineer Pierre Schaeffer explored the idea of making music from recorded environmental sounds over sixty years ago with his musique concrète and musicians have been sampling the voice for decades.
This Would Be The Time. The first piece takes its title from words spoken in a message left by my friend Fred. Fred–who loves to talk (to people and answering machines)–left a message that sounded, to my ears, like an aphorism of ambiguous and circular meaning, thus carrying with it slightly eerie overtones. This is what he said:
“This would be the time, if there were a time, this would be that time.”
I found his delivery quite musical–full of dramatic pauses, emphasized words, and somehow imbued with a weighty sense of dread.
I built a mid-tempo funk groove around the sample. Okay, not funk exactly: more a cartoon imagining of Herbie Hancock playing jazz-funk on a Wurlitzer electric piano circa the 1973/Headhunters era. Besides the “funky” keyboards, there are drums, guitar, strings, some electronic blip sounds, and horns. The sounds are all sampled presets and played by me on a keyboard. I arranged This Would Be Time by copying the vocal sample numerous times and placing it within the groove. Had I been more adventurous, knowing, and ambitious at the time, I might have transformed Fred’s voice by transposing it or severely processing it somehow. But my interest was elsewhere. All I did to the voice was add reverb.
It’s only at the very end of the piece that the full message Fred left on my answering machine reveals itself:
“This would be the time, if there were a time, this would be that time that we would speak, were you there, or calling in for your messages precisely now to call me, virtually at this moment. Ah . . . that is, if all is right in the world, this would be the time. So: to be continued.”
Have You Any Thoughts? The title of this piece also comes from a message Fred left on my answering machine. But this time, Fred’s voice is joined by the voices of three friends (Todd, Elias, and Njoroge) and mom. In all, there are five vocal samples in the piece. A bit of background: At the time that everyone left their messages, I had some ambient electronic music I had composed as the greeting on my answering machine. The music for Have You Any Thoughts is not this ambient music but rather a soundtrack to the various reactions it elicited among friends and family.
Have You Any Thoughts? is a humorous piece, in part because what the sampled voices are saying is so polarized. Here, mom waxes on and on about how she enjoyed listening to the music, while Njoroge is just irritated by the sound (“I hate your f***ing answering machine”), Todd is deeply amused, triggering his own fits of laughter (“I was going to say something about the elevator music, but then I realized that it might be one of your compositions”), Elias hears it as an encouraging sign (“I think it’s good that you have music on your answering machine. It means you’re getting cocky”), while Fred wonders aloud into the aether (“Thoughts, Tom? Thoughts? Have you any thoughts?”) The piece pits the voices against one another, each making their case for the significance or annoyance of my answering machine music. Underneath these voices I scored another mid-tempo, faux funk piece. The music sounds square and it creates the sense that this is the music the voices are responding to.
All About Affect. This piece is built around another sample of Fred’s voice but is sparser in its orchestration. And unlike the other pieces, All About Affect uses the voice sample as the main melody, doubling it with a bass, and later, with horns. The instrumentation also includes a zither, percussion, and piano. The piece has a lot of space in it, takes its time to develop, and then diminishes to a close.
These answering machine pieces are in some ways less about the music per se, and more about highlighting or framing what I think are three important ideas expressed in the track titles. This Would Be The Time is about the fleetingness of time and how a small window of time can appear and then be gone. The voice on this piece represents a presence meeting an absence–a missed opportunity for conversation. Have You Any Thoughts? cuts to the chase and asks us if we have anything interesting, anything substantive, on our minds at this very moment. Don’t mind the hype (“I’m just breathless . . .”) or the naysayers (“I was going to comment on the elevator music . . .”)–the real issues are: Can you concentrate? Can you do it right now? Have you any thoughts? (Cue to R. Buckminster Fuller: “I always say to myself: What is the most important thing we can think about at this extraordinary moment?”) Finally, All About Affect is a reminder that, in music at least, the most important thing is whether or not a piece makes us feel something, whether or not it affects us in some way, whether or not it has affect. Moving outwards from music, other experiences–telling a story, making a joke, delivering a flavor–have a better chance of shaping us too if they can also make us feel something. Affect is a vehicle for ideas and also a very real thing in itself.
In honor of all the cold weather lately, I take the opportunity to revisit one of the only odes of the North (and the cold) that I know of–I’m speaking of course about Glenn Gould’s radio documentary, The Idea of North. Gould is most famous as a pianist who renders the keyboard music of J.S. Bach with crystal clarity, making the composer’s dense fugues sound like a (contrapuntal) walk in the park. Here is a clip of Gould playing Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E Major on a two-tiered harpsichord.
As Gould retired from the concert stage to concentrate on recording, he also began experimenting with musique concrète-style audio compositions. His best known work is The Idea Of North, the first of a three-part radio documentary called The Solitude Trilogy. Here, Gould explores what the (Canadian) north means to a variety of characters who either live there or have interacted with the North in some way.
The Idea of North is hard to categorize: it’s part soundscape, part documentary, part studio composition, part contrapuntal radio experiment. But most of all it’s about multiple voices telling overlapping stories that requires of us new ways of listening; in fact, it reminds us how differently we process music and speech. We can easily pay attention to many musical lines happening at once, but following several conversations at once and making sense of several voices sounding simultaneously is much more difficult to do.
Here is an excerpt of The Idea Of North:
And here is an interview with Peter Shewchuk, one of the sound editors who worked with Gould on the project.